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Best Practices - American Society of Picture Professionals

Best Practices

ASPP’s Best Practices for Locating Copyright Owners of Photographic and Visual Art


Depending on the information you are using to begin your search, The American Society of Picture Professionals (ASPP) recommends the following approaches for locating copyright ownership of visual images (primarily those created by North American authors), and that you should consult appropriate legal counsel about the business risks associated with using a work where the author or ownership may be in doubt.

The information below should not be relied upon to determine if the steps you take are legally sufficient. Since there is no current legislation that permits the use of a work if the owner cannot be located and any legislation may not be retroactive, the fact that you have tried to locate the owner and did not succeed is not a defense to a claim of infringement by an emerging copyright owner. The copyright owner could seek monetary damages as well as an injunction to prevent the future publication of the work in certain circumstances. If the work is registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, the owner can also seek statutory damages and attorney’s fees.


  • If you have a digital image file, search its embedded metadata information for additional source information. To do this in Adobe Photoshop, open an image document, under “File” go to “File Info” to view various data such as document title, description, author and copyright notice.
  • Searching locally in job folders, download folders, emails, invoice records, in- house image databases, and chat sessions could link the image to a project, supplier or co-worker who might provide additional insight into the image’s origin. Look for the image’s creation and/or modification time stamp (via Photoshop’s “File Info”) to search by date range in the aforementioned places to find more clues.
  • Search for the photographer on one of the many sites listed under the heading “Photography” below.
  • If known, contact the original stock agency or successor agency. They should be able to contact the photographer on your behalf or put you in contact with the photographer even if they no longer represent him/her. For help finding a particular stock agency, contact the Digital Media Licensing Association (DMLA) who can provide a list of member agencies (see “Photography”).
  • Contact the original publisher. If you found the image in a magazine, look on the masthead and contact someone in the photo department, if in a text book, call the publisher and ask for photo permissions, if seen on the web, call or email the author or website owner.
  • If it is an advertisement, contact the company and try to find the advertising agency that may have purchased the rights or hired the photographer. Search by the photographer’s name at various stock agency sites to try to find the image or to see if the agency might represent the photographer.
  • Download the PicScout suite of tools. This product can connect you to the creator of the work by utilizing digital fingerprinting technology. PicScout indexes images whose sources are image agencies and photo collections such as Flickr. When you download their tools and do an online search by the creator’s name, keywords, or other metadata, images that are indexed by PicScout will appear in your search results with an information icon. Clicking on the icon will reveal information such as who owns the image, a connection to license it and more. Visit http://www.picscout.com.
  • Contact the Professional Photographers of America (PPA) and use their photographer registry http://www.photographerregistry.com.
  • Contact the Picture Licensing Universal System to search in their artists and licensor registry http://www.useplus.com/useplus/registry.asp.
  • Search by photographer’s name using mass engines such as Google, Bing or Yahoo as well as through photo-sharing and networking sites (i.e., Flickr, LinkedIn, Facebook, Lightstalkers) to follow leads and find resumé information, professional affiliations or educational institutions where the artist studied.
  • Search using keywords that give information about the subject of the image and find the image by subject matter (which might lead to contact info for the photographer).
  • If the image is an historical photo of a known location or historically significant event, contact a local newspaper or historical society. The image might have been published with a story or archived. Often staff of such organizations will know how to locate the copyright holder or will be able to direct you to a source with answers.
  • Contact the U.S. Copyright Office at http://www.copyright.gov/records and search their database of copyright registrations (available since 1975). This search is limited, as you need to search by title of the work or name of author or claimant; there is no image search.
  • Search using the Digital Media Licensing Association (DMLA) PACASearch tool, a web-based stock image metasearch engine targeted to photo buyers/researchers who seek licensable images on the web. Keywords and other data related to an image can be used to search hundreds of databases simultaneously for disambiguated search results. At this time, more than 70 million images are included.
  • Try the advanced Google Image Search with keywords that use information about the subject of the image and contact the administrator of any sites that come up with the same image (warning: you may uncover uses that were never properly licensed).
  • To try to find the image by subject matter, search various stock agency sites by keywords, using information about the subject of the image. The following are sites that list many stock agencies in one place by subject/type of imagery or aggregate keyword search results from a variety of agencies:
    1. Digital Media Licensing Association (DMLA). Click on pull down menu at top of page to indicate specific subject matter
    2. Stock Index Online
    3. A Photo Editor
    4. Photographic Library Directory
  • Do a search with the aforementioned PicScout tool downloaded onto your computer.
  • Another web-based measure to assist you is TinEye, an engine that uses image identification technology to locate images on the web. Even when the TinEye search yields other sites displaying the same image, it’s possible that these other instances may retain the image’s original source filename or embedded metadata. TinEye uses image identification technology rather than keywords, metadata or watermarks.
  • Digimarc is a product that uses digital watermarks (imperceptible codes embedded in digital content) to track unlicensed uses on-line. Conversely, researchers can look for the Digimarc coding in an image file to obtain information on the image’s creator. To do so, open the image file in Adobe Photoshop. Select “Read Watermark” from the Digimarc plug-in menu (Filter > Digimarc > Read Watermark). If the creator is a Digimarc subscriber, you will be presented with the image’s copyright information or directed to the creator’s website.
  • Email DMLA directly. DMLA has implemented a low-tech solution to assist buyers in finding the creator of an image that does not contain author attribution. If you have an image without copyright information, simply email a copy of the image (attach or embed the image file), along with any other relevant information, to orphansearch@pacaoffice.org. The email is validated by the moderator (a DMLA staff member) and automatically sent out to all DMLA members and affiliated associations.

The following sites allow searches by a photographer’s name:


When searching for fine artists or trying to clear rights for works of fine art, the following links are helpful:


When searching for illustrators, the following sites are helpful:


Once you have exhausted your search using these resources and the author and copyright ownership of the work is still in doubt, consult legal counsel about the business risks associated with using the work. If you determine that the risk of infringement is low, be sure to maintain, in writing, what steps you took to locate the copyright owner and the date you took those steps.

The following sites can give you a better understanding of the legal pitfalls of image use as well as advice on licensing images with confidence.

To contribute your tips and resources to this document, please contact director@aspp.com.

©2011–2015 ASPP. All rights reserved.
Written by Holly Marshall with contributions from Amy Wrynn.

Updated September 22, 2015